Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

EPSON MFP imageAbout 8 years ago, I started reviewing movies. A Blockbuster was still open near my house — oh, how I miss them — and I remember browsing through the aisles at one point thinking ‘Man, there are so many movies out there I haven’t seen.’ And so it began! I remember clearly coming home with today’s flick, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. I loved it then and loved it now. A somewhat forgotten classic.

Posing as a preacher in an isolated Montana town, a former thief (Clint Eastwood) finds himself on the run. He’s picked up by an amiable young drifter, Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), who is a few minutes off of stealing a stylish Trans Am. The duo sticks together, both just drifting along looking for a chance to earn some cash, easy cash if possible. The thief, dubbed Thunderbolt by the papers, slowly lets out his story of how he got to be in this spot. “Aiding” the cause? Two of his former gang members are on his trail, all of them looking for clues to a supposedly lost take from a previous job. How to solve it all? That’s Lightfoot’s idea. What if they pulled off the same job in the exact same fashion? There have been crazier ideas…

Talk about a movie where a plot synopsis is unnecessary. This is the one. From director/writer Michael Cimino, ‘Thunderbolt’ is one of the most entertaining movies ever. It can’t be pegged into any one genre. At different points, you can call it a buddy flick, a road trip movie, a comedy, a drama, a mystery, a heist flick, an Americana story, a modern western, and several more I could probably list. What makes it so special is that it doesn’t need a linear story. It can bounce among those genres at will and with ease. In terms of pure entertainment, I’m hard-pressed to come with many better.

An established star in Eastwood and a rising star in Bridges are immaculately perfect together. Their chemistry is impeccable. You don’t need a episodic, even linear story when you’ve got two characters like this who keep things moving and generally keep things fairly grounded. Eastwood’s Thunderbolt gets to play the straight man but still gets plenty of laughs. Bridges’ Lightfoot is the motor-mouthed, quick-witted and likable drifter, always ready with an observation, a thought, an opinion and a quick smile. The duo brings Cimino’s script to life. We learn about their background and history in snippets that are never overdone or forced. Like the on-screen chemistry itself, it all feels natural.

One of the best buddy dynamics ever really. You can’t help but like both men. Thunderbolt starts to look after Lightfoot like a little brother while Lightfoot idolizes Thunderbolt and his criminal exploits, not to mention his service during the Korean War. There is an easy-going charm to it all. It’s not Butch and Sundance — my all-timer for comparison of the buddy variety — but it’s really, reallllllly close.

This is a quintessential 1970’s movie too. In the vein of Charley Varrick, The Lineup and countless others, there’s a look and a feel to the story. I was born in 1985 so I don’t know this for sure obviously, but the painting of what 1970’s America is in Montana ends up being an additional character. Small towns, communities that keep to themselves, a picture of a decade that serves as a perfect snapshot. Cimino filmed on-location in Montana, and the visual look is stunningly gorgeous. You could freeze-frame individual shots, print them up and frame them. Was this an accurate vision of small-town America at the time? I don’t know. Maybe it’s what it should have been.

Two other always welcome character actors round out the thieving crew, starting with George Kennedy as Red Leary, a possibly unhinged killer who Thunderbolt always manages to keep under control. Kennedy shows off his range, brimming on psychotic episodes here and there, especially with a hatred for Lightfoot. Geoffrey Lewis plays Goody, the naive, not-so-smart but well-meaning thief who always tags along. An interesting quartet with a history, a backstory revealed slowly but surely as the 115-minute story develops. If it’s confusing early, stick with it. The payoff is worth it. Kennedy is the mystery man here — when will he lose it? — but he delivers some of the movie’s funniest, most memorable lines. His buzz-off to a snarky kid is an all-timer. No spoilers. Watch the movie.

That quartet is in just about every scene in some variety. There are also small, supporting parts for Catherine Bach, Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague in The Andy Griffith Show), Dub Taylor, Roy Jenson, Bill McKinney and Gregory Walcott.

The momentum picks up in the second half as the heist Part 2 comes into play. Still some lighter touches but it goes down a darker path. I’m all for a downer ending, but this has always been a tough one. The heist is pretty cool though, packing some serious punch and some intricate timing. This is a movie that has it all in one capacity or another. One of my favorites, and hopefully one of yours too.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974): ****/****

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The Dirty Dozen

One of the all-time great tough guy casts — if not the greatest — in one of my favorite genres. A movie that stands the test of time that is action-packed, darkly funny and amazingly entertaining. It has taken abuse over the years by some because of its shocking ending, but it also has built up a diehard following by those who will defend it to the last (including me). One of my favorite movies ever, and a Memorial Day themed review, 1967’s The Dirty Dozen.

An American army officer with a record a mile long, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) has been given a mission that even he doesn’t believe is real. It’s late spring 1944, and as the Allies prepare for the D-Day invasion, the Allied high command (including Ernest Borgnine) delivers his impossible, suicidal mission. Reisman is to take 12 prisoners either sentenced to death or years of imprisonment and hard labor, train them, and then in the days before the D-Day landing, drop them into German-occupied France. Their mission? Attack a German chateau, killing as many high ranking German officers as possible, hopefully wreaking havoc on the high command. Can Reisman get the prisoners to work together before they kill him?

This is a movie that is a perfect storm of timing, casting and story. A story of 12 convicted criminals — rape, murder, robbery — turned commandos who resent any sort of authority given a mission to kill enemy officers in cold blood? Could that story even remotely fly in any time other than late 1960s America? It was a time when America was changing, a darker, more cynical time in our history. Director Robert Aldrich taps into something special there. ‘Dozen’ has a unique look to it, interesting camera angles, a catchy theme for the Dozen — listen HERE — and a general feel of giving the middle finger to any sort of power or authority figure. Could there be a more perfect movie for a 1967 audience?

I could write a whole review discussing the characters and the long list of tough guy actors who play them, but I doubt many people would read 10,000 rambling words about how the cast of The Dirty Dozen is the coolest thing ever. Let’s start with Lee Marvin, an all-around bad-ass who by the mid 1960s had become a major, bankable star. His Major Reisman, a sarcastic, quick-witted, smart-mouthed and brutally effective officer, is probably his most well known role, and he owns this movie. With the cast behind and around him, that’s saying something. Marvin delivers brutally funny one-liners left and right, handles the action scenes flawlessly, and is believable as the cynical leader of this group of crook commandos. With those type of men behind him, you need someone like him to lead.

Richard Jaeckel is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Bowren, the MP assigned to work with Reisman in training and execution of the mission. Along with Borgnine, the High Command and other Allied officers include Robert Webber, George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker. Oh, and Robert Ryan as a stiff-collared officer from the 101st. Enough for you? No?

And then there’s the Dirty Dozen. The group includes Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, the former officer sentenced to hang for killing one of his own men, a medic carrying medical supplies away from battle. There’s former NFL star Jim Brown as Jefferson, an African American soldier who killed in self defense but is sentenced to hang nonetheless. John Cassavetes was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Franko, a Chicago hood who killed a London man for $10 worth of cash. Telly Savalas is Maggot, a psychopathic Southerner convinced God works through him. Clint Walker is Posey, an Apache with rage issues, Donald Sutherland is Pinkley, a dimwitted soldier, and singer Trini Lopez plays Jiminez. Rounding out the Dozen are character actors Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, and Al Mancini as Bravos, the smallest of the bunch but with a mean/funny streak. The focus is Bronson, Brown, Cassavetes, Walker, Savalas and Sutherland, none of them disappointing, all of them living up to the hype, all given a chance to shine.

What has helped ‘Dozen’ gain its cult-like following over the years is its humor in looking at and poking some fun at war in general. Sutherland’s dimwitted Pinkley is forced to inspect a crack platoon of Ryan’s Col. Breed in one of the most memorable, truly funny scenes. Watch it HERE. Reisman later arranges for eight London prostitutes to visit the Dozen as their training winds down. The facial expressions exchanged back and forth are priceless. The high point comically — however dark it is — comes in the War Games sequence, the Dozen forced to prove their worth by capturing Col. Breed’s headquarters. They resort to cheating, con jobs, stealing, and all sorts of trickery. After the extended training sequence — which has its fair share of funny moments — the War Games development and the eventual payoff provides some great laughs.

The portion of the movie though that tends to drive people away is the attack on the chateau. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS STOP READING Here’s the plan, courtesy of Reisman, which you can watch HERE. It of course, doesn’t go as planned, Reisman, Bowren and the Dozen forced to improvise. Their solution is simple; throw grenades and gasoline down air chutes and burn (think napalm) the German officers to death. Heroic? No, I would say not. It’s a movie though. These guys aren’t portrayed as heroes. These are prototypical 1960s anti-heroes! What does work? The entire finale sequence (around 45 minutes long) is dripping with tension, and once the adrenaline starts pumping, it doesn’t stop. The Dozen start to get picked off — including two legitimate shockers — as the bullets start flying. I’ve seen this movie 50 times and still root for two characters especially to make it, knowing all the while they won’t. The means are brutal, but as far as an entertaining action sequence goes, it is one of the best.

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I grew up watching this movie a lot. Introduced to it via Memorial Day war movie marathons, it will be always be one of my favorites. I love its cynical, dark look at war. I love the ridiculously strong cast from top to bottom. It is funny, entertaining, action-packed, and a true example of ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’ A classic.

The Dirty Dozen <—trailer (1967): ****/****